Pastors are a motley bunch of souls. We represent different personalities and tribes, different methodologies and styles, not to mention denominations, traditions, and theologies. But I’ve learned over the years that there is something many of us all have in common—a profound sense of insecurity for which the only antidote is the gospel.
It’s easy to succumb to the temptation to compare one’s ministry to that of another pastor, or give in to the need to impress others and be liked.
The only remedy for these ministry idolatries and all others is the gospel because it announces, among many things, we are justified, accepted, loved, and satisfied by God in Christ.
Until pastors discover and embrace their identity in Christ—which is accomplished by Christ and received by faith, not works—they will keep trying to find their identity in their position, their preaching, their persona, and their programs.
While every pastor would affirm the gospel’s centrality to their ministry, we still need to remind each other this isn’t just some religious formality. Knowing how Christ’s finished work works in our own lives and ministries is vitally important.
So how do we become a “gospel-shaped pastor”? How (and why) should we keep the good news of the finished work of Christ at the center of our hearts and the forefront of our minds? There are many reasons, but here are four of the more important ones.
1. Remember the gospel so you will have the power you need.
In the trenches of day-to-day ministry work, it can become tragically easy to think of the whole thing as a managerial enterprise. We plan and program, we mentor and coach, we write and preach. The relational work of ministry is taxing. Studying takes its toll.
Nearly every pastor I know has been wearied by ministry. For this reason, we need to remember Christianity is not some ordinary religious methodology. It is supernatural.
We pray because we aren’t in control. We preach the Scriptures because only God’s Word can change hearts. We share the gospel because only the grace of Christ can bring the dead to life. We have to remember who we are in Christ or we will go on ministry autopilot, assuming we’re working under our own power.
Knowing the power of the gospel (Romans 1:16, 1 Thessalonians 1:5) means the weakness of the pastor is no hindrance to the Lord at all. In fact, the very idea of Christianity presupposes human inability and weakness. Paul goes so far as to boast in his weakness, knowing that when he is weak, Christ is strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
We’re told that a Korean pastor once visited the United States and was asked what he thought of the American church, to which he replied, “It is amazing what the church in America can do without the Holy Spirit.” May this never be said of us!
If we pursue pastoral ministry in our own strength, trusting in our own selves, we will be in big trouble. Our churches will be devastated, and so will we.
No, let us remember all that we are is because of Christ, and apart from him, we can do nothing. This reality will empower our leadership and our preaching and achieve real spiritual impact.
2. Remember the gospel so you won’t be puffed up by success.
Because we are sinners, we are prone to taking more credit than we deserve. For the pastor, especially, the temptation grows to embrace the wrong kind of pride when things begin to go well in a church. It’s fine to “be proud of” our churches. Paul often tells the churches they are “his boast.” But he says this to encourage them and celebrate their growth, not to take credit for it!
When we implement a program and it takes off, isn’t it tempting to believe we can program success? And when we receive great feedback on our sermons, isn’t it tempting to believe spiritual impact comes from our well-turned phrases more than God’s inspired Word? Maybe this isn’t so for you, but it is for me. Success can be dangerous, especially for leaders.
When we remember our identity in Christ, we recall it is he who has made us, and not we ourselves (Psalm 100:3). When we remember the gospel, it is impossible to get puffed up by success because the gospel is so humbling. It puts us in our place, while at the same time giving us great confidence. This is especially necessary when it’s not success we are experiencing, but failure.
3. Remember the gospel so you won’t be devastated by failure.
I have pastored a church that tripled in attendance in a few short years and launched well-received program after program. And I’ve pastored a church that held people like a sieve, with new decline around every corner. I’m here to tell you neither was easier than the other. Both were equally tempting of the pride inside my heart.
The great thing about centering on the gospel of Jesus Christ for pastoral ministry is it helps guard against pride amid success, and it helps guard against despair amid failure.
In lean times, we can become despondent about our ministries and get wrapped up in sulking and self-pity. Or we can turn angry and defensive. The gospel is so calibrating. When we focus on who we are in Christ, his glory washes away our ministry idols with tsunami-like force.
Focusing on Christ’s glory changes us (2 Corinthians 3:18), even when there is no noticeable gain in ministry life. Think of Isaiah in the temple, for instance (Isaiah 6), or any of the other prophets. Think of how single-minded they were in God’s work and his character in the midst of exile and captivity, when times were low.
Knowing we belong to God, knowing we are united to Christ, knowing we are justified—not on the basis of our ministry success, but on the basis of Christ’s—is hugely satisfying and supernaturally encouraging.
Pastor, you need the gospel’s clearing of the air, especially when the dust cloud of ministry rubble surrounds you. And one important way the gospel clears the air is by helping us correctly define success.
4. Remember the gospel so you will know how to measure success.
Growing a big church. Leading a growing staff. Preaching exceptional sermons. These are all admirable. But none of them is anything the Bible actually calls us to do. That doesn’t make them wrong goals. It just means we shouldn’t tune our hearts to our relative success in them.
No, the Bible calls pastors to do only a few important things: make disciples, feed the sheep, equip the saints. This means it’s not the pastor’s job to be successful, but to be faithful.
Pastor, may the Lord grant you incredible success. We can even pray he would help us be successful in the things he’s called us to do. But let us pray more often and more fervently that he would keep us faithful. No one gets into heaven because of a big church or a dynamic preaching style. No one gets the crown because of book deals or speaking platforms or social media followers. We are saved by grace alone.
Reflecting on his time in Corinth, Paul writes these incredible words:
What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? They are servants through whom you believed, and each has the role the Lord has given. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)
Big budgets and big buildings are not the true measure of our ministry’s success. The true measure is the faithfulness with which we both trusted in and led people to the glory of the risen Christ. True ministry success comes not from our increasing, but from Christ’s (John 3:30).
This is why it’s important to remember our identity in Christ—because we are “not anything.” Only God is. Let us pastor ourselves in and pastor others to that reality.